James Salter is one of my favorite writers. We had a lot of interests in common–both fighter pilots, skiers, climbers, Francophiles, and food lovers. He wrote elegantly about all of them – The Hunters, Downhill Racer, Solo Faces, A Sport and a Pastime, Life is Meals — and I grieved when he died at age 90 in 2015 .
Yesterday, M and I decided to keep his Life is Meals, a book he wrote with his wife Kay, on our coffee table. Subtitled A Food Lover’s Book of Days, it presents a short entry, maybe a story, an historical anecdote, or a recipe for each day of the year. Today’s entry (June 23rd) is entitled “Dinner Companions” and begins “Epicurus, Montaigne and many others offer the same advice; choose the companions first. Certain people will be better with certain others.”
Naming people we’d like to have dinner with has always been an imaginative exercise. Leonardo? Marilyn Monroe? Einstein? JFK? Jackie Robinson? Who would you pick? I didn’t have any trouble. My number one pick was Arthur Ashe, someone who is always at the top of my most admired list.
When I read Salter’s prompt, race didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t admire Arthur Ashe because he was an accomplished black athlete. I simply saw him as someone I’d like to share a meal with. From the days when I lived in West LA and watched him practice with UCLA teammate, Rafael Osuna, I was a big fan. He was a graceful mover, always a joy to watch, and from the day he refused to play in South Africa I admired his character. Then came his AIDS diagnosis (from a blood transfusion) and until his death I was awed by his courage and quiet advocacy.
He wasn’t the only person I was thinking of, but his was the first name that came to mind. I thought, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, his input would be extremely interesting. You can’t imagine how alarmed I was to discover that just four days ago, the statue honoring him in Richmond was defaced by a white supremacist and covered with White Lives Matter graffiti. Inconceivable…and it changed my dinner list completely.
M and I like small dinner gatherings, so we limited the guest list to six. We think it’s the upper limit for good conversation, and because we’re sports fans and political junkies, we added Jesse Owens, Thomas Jefferson, Serena Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Josephine Baker. Observers and participants, past and present.
If not for the Covid-19/Black Lives Matter crises the list would have been much different. I probably would have invited an artist (Leonardo or Georgia O’Keefe), a scientist (Leonardo or Madame Curie), an engineer (Leonardo or Hedy Lamarr), a musician (yes, Leonardo or Alicia Keys). No doubt about it…Leonardo would have been at the head of the table.
But, instead of the rich conversation about art, science and the humanities I imagined, this conversation would be focused on the crises of our times and ways to address them. I don’t pretend to have answers, but I believe enlightened people like our guests would start with how we treat each other and realize the solutions to both Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter start there.
At a personal level, I want to know if my dinner companions would see me as part of the problem? Would they think I’m blind to my own prejudice? It’s surely a possibility. The dictionary defines racism as the belief that a particular race is superior to another, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and the differences produce the inherent superiority of a particular race. I don’t believe any of that, but I’ve lived my life mostly on the sidelines of America’s systemic oppression of African Americans. Does that make me complicit? The current dialogue is drawing us all in.
We were surprised by the coronavirus pandemic, and most of us believe our government grossly and fatally mismanaged it, but we shouldn’t be surprised at the intensity of Black Lives Matter. America has sat on the sidelines watching black Americans being murdered by white policemen and vigilantes without consequence. Our dinner conversation would no doubt be rich, heartfelt, and angry. It might even lead to a discussion of guns by the time dessert is served.
Then maybe, after dinner, Arthur would hit some balls with me: